Dark side of FOMO: Fear of missing out in college students linked to cheating, drug use, stealing

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Fear of missing out (FOMO) can influence students to break both the law and the honor system, new research explains.

Two studies found an association between FOMO among college students and illicit behavior, including illegal drug use and cheating on exams. The term FOMO gained popularity around 2004, with people using it to describe a phenomenon observed on social networking sites.

FOMO includes two processes; firstly, perception of missing out, followed up with a compulsive behavior to maintain these social connections. Researchers from Southern Connecticut State University say that the fear of missing out on rewarding and fun experiences is something most people feel at some point in their lives.

Among college students, however, the degree to which someone experiences FOMO displays a connection to their risk of participating in “maladaptive behaviors.” This includes academic misconduct, substance abuse, and even committing crimes.

For many students, the team notes that college is a major transitional period that can either promote psychological growth or psychological problems. Previous studies have found a link between FOMO and disruptive or harmful social media use. Researchers believe a greater understanding of how FoMO influences behavior can help reduce its negative influence.

FOMO also connected to criminal behavior

For the study, 472 students completed a questionnaire assessing their FOMO levels, history of unethical or illegal behavior while in college, and their individual demographic variables. The researchers analyzed the data both by using standard statistical approaches and by applying machine learning algorithms to the information.

Results discovered associations between FOMO and nearly all the bad behaviors examined by the team. Higher levels of FOMO displayed a connection to higher rates of classroom incivility, plagiarism, increased alcohol consumption, drinking at younger ages, as well as increased use of cannabis, stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens.

High FOMO levels also had a connection to illegal activities including distributing drugs to others and stealing.

The machine learning algorithm found similar associations and highlighted the impact of someone’s living situation, socioeconomic status, and gender on several of these connections. Study authors suggest that brief FOMO assessments, as small as just 10 questions, may be “valuable risk prediction tools” for counselors looking to help students transition to college life.

“Using Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) and demographic information, we were able to predict class membership (offender/user vs non-offender/non-user) of college students across multiple domains (alcohol and drug use, academic misconduct, illegal behavior) well above baseline (e.g., 50% at baseline vs 87% for academic misconduct). These results suggest that FoMO exists not just as an aversive phenomenon, but it also leads to concrete consequences for individuals and society,” the team concludes.

The findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.